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n The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-pandemic World (2021), Benjamin Bratton argues the left, broadly defined, has uncritically adopted the fear of biopolitics from one particular strand of Continental Philosophy. Bratton suggests that by refusing to engage positively with biopolitics (‘the governance of the ‘biological’: of life and the body’), we are exposed to irrational biopolitics: our lives and bodies incompetently governed and endangered.
In place of this synthesis of the academic rejection of positive control with the reality of incompetent control, Bratton maintains we need a “positive biopolitics”, the beginnings of which can be seen in the various responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bratton suggests that “future political science may look back upon [the pandemic] as the largest control experiment in comparative governance history” (21), although ‘experimentation’ was not the cause of the divergent responses.
Bratton is Professor of Visual Arts at University of California, San Diego. He has spent his career exploring our changing techno-urban milieu. The Revenge of the Real is no exception, considering the familiar topic of human “entanglement” and broaching the question: how do we govern this entangled world we live within, and which we constitute?
Bratton picks up a multitude of threads in a relatively small number of pages, introducing us to “filtering”, the “epidemiological view of society”, “the sensing layer”, “touchlessness” and “the ethics of being an object”. He describes how global social structures arbitrarily “filter” us into different experiences of the pandemic, based both on the government we find ourselves sheltering under and the changes (or lack thereof) to our working conditions. Bratton views society epidemiologically, from the perspective of contagion containment, a perspective from which he critiques the current structure of both our own societies, and the global system. This leads to his belief that every interaction (both between individual human beings, and between humans and technology) is part of society’s “sensing layer”: the networks of self-information gathering and monitoring. This “sensing layer” provokes a reassessment of the phenomenon of ‘touch’ where Bratton guides us to understand physical touch as radically broader than traditionally perceived. He uses mask wearing to challenge our idea of “intimacy”, highlighting that the prevention of physical contact by particles in the breath is a caring ‘touchlessness’: the protection of the ‘other’ through maintaining distance and barriers.
In a controversial move, Bratton lays the groundwork for an ethics which replaces ‘intention’ with material causality as the locus of ethics, challenging us to act with the knowledge that we are embodied beings and potential vectors for disease (although stressing that being infected is not a moral defect). If this blow by blow of primary concepts feels crowded or in any way underdeveloped, then it is worth mentioning that Bratton himself considers the work to be “a timely polemic rather than a definitive statement” (6). The book is accordingly replete with short, thought-provoking beginnings of what should, in the future, be full theoretical discussions.
The Revenge of the Real’s main strength is Bratton’s articulation of the inescapable nature of biopolitics and the resultant need for a “positive biopolitics” (12). Our ability to govern ‘life’ and ‘the body’ is not something we can give up or escape, we cannot dis-entangle ourselves from a bio-social matrix of human beings entangled in a techno-urban environment. It is impossible to save some ‘sovereign individual’ from the recklessly unhygienic or the incompetent administrator. If we are to avoid these threats, we must take control of ‘the biopolitical’ and “the sensing layer” which allows our society to be protected at the epidemiological level.
However, its great weakness is Bratton’s ambiguity over who gets to be the agent in the ‘epidemiological society’ and gets to oversee the arrangement of the “objects”. “Society”, in The Revenge of the Real, can “credentialize, shape, and reflect” policy, but only indirectly as disembodied “political culture”, not through concrete self-governance. Bratton claims agnosticism over the centralized/decentralized debate and his explicit definition of ‘governance’ as the “changing” of “the Real” “as it is” is not necessarily hierarchical. Yet at every available opportunity he makes partisan attacks on strawperson-ed antihierarchical approaches. One central manifestation of this ambiguity is the lack of distinction between the act of governance and the ontological category of ‘governor’, here filled by the epidemiological ‘expert’ who moulds this biopolitical ‘space’. This displays the concrete issue with his hierarchical ambiguity, it threatens to allow a division between who is a ‘causal entity’ in society, and who has a voice in governing society.
Throughout the book, Bratton makes vague statements that society will get to govern itself, yet there is no clear rejection of hierarchical governance. Without such clarity, and with only the reference points provided within the ‘global experiment’ of the pandemic, we seem to be aiming for benign professionalized epidemiologist governors, filling a ‘knowledge’ role not unlike the influential neoliberal economic expert. Bratton is right to insist on structures of governance and increased international cooperation, but wrong to claim those opposed to hierarchy reject these. In substantive terms his critique of ‘horizontal’ governance is that it is all reducible to the “feral brunch village” that was the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). There is no engagement with approaches to governance beyond the State, excepting a cursory acceptance that a city council might occasionally be a useful proxy. Of course, Bratton’s state-based ‘experiment’ lacks non-hierarchical points of reference for a positive biopolitics of collective self-governance. However, that does not de-legitimize the rejection of hierarchy, it merely undermines his ‘experiment’ as naturalizing hierarchical responses to crisis. The “reality” that we are all potential vectors forces us to consider how we govern ourselves but does not mean that only ‘experts’ have influence and agency, instead it shows us that we all do.
Ultimately, The Revenge of the Real is a vital and insightful text, worthy of attention in our current global milieu of crises. Bratton’s key insight is interesting in its materialist recognition of the myriad sources of agency (or as he sees it, ‘causation’). However, it is undermined by his reliance on a conventional conception of expertise as something which acts on a society. He is concerned with ensuring everyone is modelled, but the corollary of that: that their importance entitles them to a ‘voice’, is ignored. As are both the question of how one acquires expertise of, and thus power over, society and the question of accountability.
Bratton does not think that ‘scientific knowledge’ needs to be accountable; he does not claim “omniscience or omnipotence” (143) for it but still thinks that it can ‘objectively’ and unproblematically transform data into policy. When rigorously stripped of its hierarchical ambiguities, “positive biopolitics” is an essential consideration for everyone concerned with the creation of a better world. However, in its ‘unstripped’ form, Bratton’s concept deserves Arturo Escobar’s critique of “orientalism in economics” (1995: 62). Paraphrasing Escobar, Bratton “reminds us of one of the quintessential aspects of modernity: the need to compose the world as a picture” (56). Bratton’s ensemble of experts need to compose society as a picture; paradoxically, however, all they are left with is another representation… while the ‘real’ society forever recedes into the background.
Bratton B (2021) The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-pandemic World. London and New York: Verso Books.
Escobar A (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World Princeton and Chichester: Princeton University Press.
Jake Fremantle is studying for a Masters degree in Global Environment, Politics and Society at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 2021.